Saturday, 28 December 2013

On beer writing

A few weeks back I was asked by What’s Brewing in my capacity of Secretary of the British Guild of Beer Writers to write something about beer writing for their back page column Industry Insider. I noticed in the new issue that someone has written in a letter taking me to task for ‘bemoaning’ the lack of narrative books about beer , whilst forgetting The Longest Crawl by Ian Marchant. He’s right, I completely forgot about it. I read it several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, and whilst I’m on the forgetful trail, another excellent narrative book about beer (or maybe pubs), is The Search for the Perfect Pub by Robin Turner and Paul Moody. However, enough of the sackcloth and ashes, the reason for this post: if you missed it or don’t get What’s Brewing, here is it (this is the version I sent in and it had several cuts to make it fit, it’s only here because I cannot find the print version online, so this is not a case of poor subbed me).

Writing about beer is the best job in the world. Apparently. That’s a phrase I (along with colleagues in the British Guild of Beer Writers) frequently hear, as if I spend all our time propping up the bar or travelling from brewery to brewery or pub to pub.

Yes, there’s a great deal of fun in beer writing and a fair amount of beer consumed (moderately of course). I go to beer dinners, visit breweries in the UK, across Europe and the US; occasionally brew myself; go to great pubs all over the place; judge beer and receive beers in the post. What’s not to like? Oh and I get paid for it.

However, I can count on one hand the UK beer writers who make a living from just writing about beer. I also write about travel, occasionally turn my hand to freelance subbing and editing and host beer dinners and talks. Yes, it’s not a bad job, but not the best paid.

The majority of Guild members either write about beer in their spare time (some are journalists in other fields) or communicate about it as PRs, consultants, brewers or sommeliers. We’ve even got a poet in our ranks (he’s also a part time King of Beer in Derby), while a couple of playwrights have recently joined. Beer writing (or should that be communicating?) is a broad church, all of whose members share a powerful passion for beer.

Despite the financial disincentive to write about beer, as the Guild’s Secretary, I continue to receive requests to join, from both the UK and across the world. We also have members in the US, Canada, Italy, the Low Countries, Austria and Greece — it all makes for a healthy discourse.

Was there ever a golden age of beer writing? Some might say that it could have been during the early 1990s when Michael Jackson’s column in the Saturday Independent was the first thing I turned to or when Roger Protz popped up regularly on the BBC Food Programme. Or is now with books, blogs, apps and beer tastings going on all over the place? I’m inclined to the latter.

The national newspapers, as ever, are desultory in their beer coverage — a pub column here, a feature on women in brewing/beer/whatever there. On the other hand, the regional newspapers cover beer and pubs a lot more regularly, while trade publications such as Publican’s Morning Advertiser, Host, Inapub and Pub & Bar provide a healthy amount for work for Guild members.

On the magazine front, there is of course CAMRA’s Beer, while Beers of the World, which was briefly resurrected, is now online (the history of UK beer magazines is a fraught one and needs a separate article). Let us not forget CAMRA newsletters — I spent ten years editing Somerset CAMRA’s Pints of View and it was good fun.

On the book front, yes there’s a liturgy of lists, whether 1001 Beers, 300 Beers, Craft Beer Worlds or Yorkshire beers. However, there are also home brewing books plus gift-type did-you-know-this-about-beer books and guidebooks.

For me, what is missing (and this is a constant source of conversation between some beer writers) are more narrative books about beer, something that tells a story, or undertakes a journey. Apart from Pete Brown’s trilogy of Man Walks Into a Pub, Three Sheets to the Wind and Hops & Glory, there is no real beery equivalent to Andrew Jefford’s magnificent book about Islay whisky, Peat Smoke and Spirit (though bloggers Boak & Bailey’s forthcoming Beer Britannia will be eagerly awaited).

From my own experience, publishers are unconvinced that beer narrative books will sell; maybe beer writers have to do what Tony Hawkes did, take a fridge (full of beer perhaps) around Ireland or something? It’s a shame because beer writing is crying out for something that merges beer, history, travel and anecdotes along the likes of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts or even Harry Pearson’s light-hearted take on Belgium, A Tall Man in a Low Land.

Then there are the blogs: seven or eight years after their emergence there is still a vibrant beer blogging community out there, even if some complain that many consist of beer tasting notes and ‘where I got drunk last night’. With my blog ( I enjoy the freedom to write about beer in a way that I cannot do when I have been commissioned; it’s place where I can experiment and think aloud about beer issues. Finally there is Twitter, where brief reviews, comments and links to beer stories can be posted

As well as the up and down nature of beer writing’s financial side, to me there’s also another issue beer writers need to be aware of: independence. By the very nature of what we do, beer writers are part of the industry (beer is sent to us, invitations are issued to launches and dinners), but there is a need to be separate from the industry. Beer writers should not be cheerleaders for every beer in the universe, while some writers are better than others in covering the complex issues of, say, the pub companies.

As for the future of beer writing, I’m positive. It’s no good moaning about the lack of coverage in the national press or the fact that a lot of beer books are list-orientated — people who want to be beer writers have to think beyond the traditional ways.

The whole concept of beer writing has changed in the last decade. I remember when Zak Avery, Beer Writer of the Year in 2008, started doing his beer tastings straight to camera and putting them out on Youtube. This was then a relatively new concept and at the time I remember commenting that this was asymmetrical beer writing: Zak was also writing articles, blogging as well as filming. It pays for a beer writer to use several different approaches to communicate about beer. For me that is beer writing’s future — a diversity of voices, methods and opinions letting the world know about the rich universe of beer, breweries, pubs and the people who make it all work.


  1. Enjoyed the article. I love writing about beer and pubs too. I have a weekly column in the Lancashire Telegraph and a monthly 'Talking Beer' page in a group of local papers.
    I like to think I am raising the interest and awareness in beer and pubs - hope so. :-)

  2. Interesting post and I know this has been percolating around on your desk for a while now...I still can't really compose a coherent response to this, as so much 'begats' everything after it. As you know, the market dictates, so....the heightened interest in all things beer - fuelled by bloggers, mostly, I think - leads to the current interest in guides. in terms of books, Lists will also be popular because they straddle different markets - food/drink, niche, coffee-table, and the all-important gift market. It is, however, a shame that more 'serious' (or thoughtful) beer writing still struggles to find a market; Pete Brown's work probably being the UK exception at the moment. Plenty of regional papers have regular beer columns, but you could argue that the death knell sounded for regional papers a few years ago - and there's that bubble of speaking to the same people week-in, week out. I do agree wholeheartedly with your last assertion, though - the future of beer writing will be perhaps about communicating and keeping up with both the aforementioned markets and technology. (apologies for the rambling nature of this comment, just trying to get some thoughts down - probably one more for having a heated discussion over a beer or three, ha!); there's so many more facets to this story; printed word in general, self-publishing, old-boys networks, audio/video....think of how many cookbooks there are in relation to 'serious' food discourse. It's not just beer writing. Only difference in there's plenty of food discourse in the national press.

  3. In my particular niche, beer history, I think there's been a massive improvement in the last 10 years. The good stuff is unlikely to sell huge numbers of books and without new publishing models - blogs, self-published books - probably wouldn't exist.

  4. You know my fondness for endless music analogies? Well I think indie is the way forward.

    I was very lucky to get a mainstream publisher to publish and market MWIAP - lucky that the my editor saw the potential, lucky in the timing. Lucky that it sold so well they commissioned two more from me. But they and other big publishers like them will not be commissioning any more beer books from me or anyone else in the near future. It's been 'done' for now, and the numbers are not big enough on today's market.

    That's a shame because I have many more ideas for beer books in the vein of my first three. But they would be for the beer 'scene' rather than having the mainstream appeal MWIAP did. Having said that, even MWIAP would not be published today because of how the market has changed.

    I'm very excited about Boak and Bailey's book and their publisher, Aurum, is still in the market for books like this, and then you have someone like Storey in the US who publish most of the beer books over there, but there are only so many books on they can publish on one subject and their slots are hard won.

    One of the things I'm looking at for 2014 is a series of ebooks, or at least the first one in a series. There's no advance, but you get to keep about 70% of the sale price as opposed to the 8% royalty I make off sales of my books. We're appealing to a niche (what I've learned is that while interest in beer grows, interest in reading about beer remains a very small niche of it - my total sales of MWIAP over ten years are still less than half the size of CAMRA's annual membership, for example.) But it's a big enough niche to be viable if you can invest time up front. And, of course, if your work is good enough to sell. Having read some self-published stuff, if you expect someone to shell out money for it it needs to be much more rigorously done than a blog post or even a magazine article. Maybe there's a market for freelance editors to come in and help out self-publishers in return for either a fee or percentage cut of revenue?

    The publishing model will change, is changing. And those of us (me included) who want to write longer, more narrative stuff about beer need to get off our asses and write it and publish it ourselves.

  5. cheers guys, some good comments and thoughts here

  6. I've been mulling over an idea about a beer/travel book along the lines of Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts for a few years now (so I'm glad you mentioned that - sounds like there would be at least some interest). And I've pretty much nailed down the who/what/why/where. It's the 'how' I'm having trouble with. I just don't have the time or money to do the 'research' and it's unlikely in the extreme (especially given Pete's comments above) I'll ever be granted the advance to make it a reality. Having chatted to one or two agents and publishers, I'd agree with the assertion beer has 'been done' and that things definitely need more mainstream appeal. A shame, but probably a commercial reality.

    Interested to see what effect ebooks have and whether that's an avenue to explore, though. I get the feeling the DIY route will be the one most if not all of us will have to follow if we're interested in longer, more narrative beer writing.

    As Pete says, time to get off our arses and do it.

  7. Why not simply walk the same path from Rotterdam to Istanbul and just make detailed notes about the beer? The bit about the Munich beer halls in A Time Of Gifts is a fantastic piece of writing.

  8. I believe the traditional descriptions of styles, and taste notes of examples will wither in the traditional publishing media. Probably beer travel tomes - and the genre goes back at least to the Middle Ages and a guy called Heinrich Knaust - also will become less appealing to commercial publishers who will want to save their reduced publishing picks only for "sure things". However, the flipside is e-books, paid online subscriptions (e.g. Jancis Robinson's longrunning service for wines), self-publishing ventures and other non-trad media. Even the well-trod taste note area can always be given a fresh look and anyway every few years people want to read someone new.


  9. Interesting stuff, Adrian. Sorry if I'm late to respond, but I realized I could add some information, especially to what Pete wrote, given my experience putting out "Why Beer Matters" and "Triplebock" as self-published e-books.

    We're appealing to a niche (what I've learned is that while interest in beer grows, interest in reading about beer remains a very small niche of it...)

    This is the main problem: the market for beer writing simply isn't that strong (yet). A clear illustration is on Amazon's bestseller lists. For example, sales rankings tell us that the top 20 e-books in the category of "Beer" sell about 1/3 as many copies as the top 20 e-books in "Travel Essays & Travelogues." If readers aren't buying a lot of good beer books, we're not going to have a lot of writers writing good beer books.

    That said, there's always room for good writing. And the potential is there, especially if readers have a chance to find it. I can tell you that "Why Beer Matters," a self-published e-book, sold more copies in five months than "Good Beer Guide: Prague and the Czech Republic" sold in five years.

    Another thing to think about: the advantage with indie publishing is the long tail, which exists for both e-books and print-on-demand options. Two years after "Why Beer Matters" came out, it's still selling plenty of copies every month. (Two years after "Good Beer Guide: Prague" came out, CAMRA wanted to remainder it.)

    Maybe there's a market for freelance editors to come in and help out self-publishers in return for either a fee or percentage cut of revenue?

    Actually, this was fixed for us by Big Publishing Houses, who — in a fit of cost-cutting years ago — made many of their editors and copyeditors contract workers (i.e., not staffers). That means that many editors and copyeditors are already there, willing to work freelance on whatever project for which you, as an author/publisher, want to hire them.

    It's generally not done for a percentage cut of revenue, however. Nor would you likely want it to be, because that would involve you performing the busy work of math and sending out payments instead of what you are supposed to be doing: writing. Moreover, given the long tail of indie publishing, under a revenue-share agreement you could end up sharing income with your copyeditor for twenty or thirty years. That means twenty or thirty years of sending payments: as the lady said, ain't nobody got time for that.

    What most of us do instead: hire a copyeditor or developmental editor on a contract basis, either per-page, per-project or per-hour. You pay the money out of your own pocket and once you do, you're done.

    (Alternately, you can trade editing, proofreading and copyediting services with fellow indie writers.)

    Hope that helps. If you have any questions about indie publishing, formatting, etc., just give me a shout.


  10. Hello Adrian,

    Some trainee journalists at UCLAN are making a B2B Brewery magazine, and we would be interested to know your views.
    As you have been writing about beer for a while, it would be really helpful to get some advice from you.

    Email me on

    Kind Regards,
    Saima Omar